In the 1975 referendum 67 per cent of the UK electorate voted to stay in what was then the European Community. Last Thursday that vote dropped to 48 per cent.
So, here’s the only question that matters: what happened between 1975 and 2016 to cause that turnaround? Why, after 43 years of membership, did a majority – on a turnout of 72 per cent – decide to ignore the warnings of the political establishment (over 500 of the 650 MPs, for example, supported Remain) and vote Leave? Why did the Remain campaign have so much difficulty promoting a positive message?
The immediate temptation for many on the Remain side was to blame the ‘bigots and racists’ who supported Nigel Farage and Ukip. That, like all immediate temptations, is almost a cop-out response. It was actually David Cameron who put the immigration issue centrestage in 2010, when he pledged to cut annual net immigration from around 300,000 to 100,000. It was an absurd pledge and one that he knew he couldn’t deliver (even his much vaunted experts were saying it couldn’t be done). But he made it because he wanted to outflank Ukip in the 2010 general election.
Five years later and he was taunted by Ukip after admitting that net immigration had increased rather than decreased between 2010-15. So his next wheeze was to promise an in/out referendum in the 2015 manifesto, even though he hadn’t bothered negotiating anything at all with his EU partners beforehand. His final act of madness was to kickstart the referendum on the back of hasty negotiations and a woolly promise to “limit the access of newly arriving EU workers to non-contributory in-work benefits for a total period of up to four years from the commencement of employment”.
So the campaign started with the issue of whether people trusted him on immigration – and it was on that issue that Farage was able to make headway. Astonishingly, at no point during the campaign did Cameron face down Farage in the sort of head-to-head that would have allowed him to compare and contrast his vision of the UK within the EU with Farage’s vision of a post-Brexit UK. That, as we now know, was a crucial mistake by the Remain camp.
And another crucial mistake was the decision to sell Remain on statistics and dread rather than the broader values of collective membership. Leave always focused on the “bright, brave new world” and “not being afraid to stand on our own two feet”, making for a much easier sell than Remain’s approach of, “Be afraid. Be very afraid”. Cameron was through all of this before with the Scottish referendum – which he came close to losing at one point – yet he seems to have learned no lessons. He allowed himself to be steered by the agenda of others and singularly failed to address genuine concerns about immigration and identity (concerns which weren’t limited to just Ukip supporters); as well as failing to address the concerns of people – like me, for instance – who opposed the emergence of an EU superstate.
Actually, I think the biggest single mistake of the Remain campaign was the cavalier, snobbish, we-know-better-than-you dismissal of anyone who didn’t agree with them. Yes, ‘experts’ may know more than most of us about specific subjects, but Cameron should have acknowledged that ‘experts’ are, occasionally, wrong. Let’s be honest, a parade of bankers, company directors, economists and academics is hardly likely to win over people who saw their jobs, pensions, savings and lifestyles wrecked by one economic crisis after another. Again, dismissing people with my concerns as ‘little Englanders’ was the brusque, self-defeating response of the arrogant and aloof.
On a number of occasions during the campaign I noted the inherent stupidity of the Remain strategy. Indeed, in last week’s column I wrote: “What has surprised me most about the referendum has been the complete pig’s ear the Remain camp has made of what should have been a reasonably easy pitch … The present mess is a failure of Cameron’s leadership: a failure to extol what he supposedly holds dear. Whatever the result, he is, politically and electorally, toast, and the EU question still won’t be resolved. He deserves to lose.” Well, he did lose. And he is toast. When the only person gloating on June 24 was Nigel Farage, Cameron understood the scale of the defeat and knew there was no one else to blame.
Referendums by their very nature are polarising – most of you will remember the one on the Good Friday Agreement. The week or so following the result always involves a mixture of shock, joy, misery, accusations, anger, disbelief and often just sheer astonishment as both sides get to grips with the consequences.
I voted Leave, because of my concerns about the ‘Topsy-like growth of a superstate’: and I would vote Leave again if there was a second referendum (which, by the way, I think is probable).
But I do accept that many, many people who voted Remain – who made their decision with the same integrity and analysis that I made mine – are worried and maybe even frightened. That’s probably true, too, of many who voted Leave.
So the primary task now for the political establishment and a new government is to set out a very clear gameplan for what comes next. Remain expected to win. Leave expected to lose. They must both deal with the reality of their present situation. Democracy is an oddly wonderful, albeit frustrating thing.